Rome was built on the successes of its mighty army. For centuries, Roman legions pushed the boundaries of the empire out in all directions, growing accustomed to easy victories. By the first century A.D., the thick forests of Germany were their final frontier.
As far as the Romans knew, Germany was populated by unsophisticated tribes of barbarians. Beginning around 6 B.C., Roman forces began to push steadily deeper into Germany. They encountered little resistance: the locals traded with them and even served as mercenaries under Roman commanders.
In the fall of 9 A.D., a Roman general named Publius Quinctilius Varus set out to conquer Germany once and for all. He led a massive force of 15,000 legionaries trailed by thousands of supply wagons and hangers-on. By his side was a young German prince named Arminius, who Varus trusted as an adviser and guide to the local geography.
As the legions marched, the German suggested a detour into territory Varus and his commanders didn't know. Arminius volunteered to ride ahead, scouting out the best route. As Arminius disappeared up ahead, Varus began to find the terrain rough going: his column of well-trained troops, used to marching through open country, stretched out over eight or more miles. The weather turned foul and rainy, making it even harder for the Romans to move forward through the dense forests with their supply wagons and horses.
Without warning, small groups of German warriors materialized out of the woods on either side of the Roman column, hurling spears and then vanishing again. Varus decided to push deeper into enemy territory, headed for a Roman fort 60 miles away. It was a fatal error.
Trap at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest
Arminius, it turns out, was a traitor. He had lured the Romans into a trap: under the pretext of scouting the way, he had ridden ahead to rally the German tribes against the invaders. Thetribeskept harassingthe Romans for days, drawing them deeper and deeper into the forest. On the third day -- some historians think it may have been Sept.11 -- Arminius made his move. The Roman legions were pushing forward along a narrow path between a huge hill and a thick swamp when screaming German warriors appeared on all sides.
Arminius had planned things to perfection. Rome's legions were used to fighting on their own terms, and did best on open ground where they were able to make full use of their superb organization. Unnerved by days of hit-and-run attacks and unable to rally in the tight confines of the German wilderness, the Romans panicked. Varus and his top commanders, anticipating defeat, fell on their swords in mid-battle, leaving their troops leaderless.
Continuing reading about the Battle of Teutoburg Forest on the next page.
Slaughter at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest
The result was a total catastrophe. "An army unexcelled in bravery, the first of Roman armies in discipline, in energy, and in experience in the field, through the negligence of its general, the perfidy of the enemy, and the unkindness of fortune ...was exterminated almost to a man by the very enemy whom it has always slaughtered like cattle," a Roman military historian wrote 20 years later. The Romans who surrendered were tortured and sacrificed, their skulls nailed to the trees and their bodies stripped and left to rot on the battlefield.
A few survivors managed to carry word of the defeat south to Rome, where the reaction was shock and disbelief. Augustus reportedly cried, "Varus, give me back my legions!" when he heard the news. The defeat wiped out 10 percent of the Roman army – a stunning blow to the most powerful empire in the world at the time. Known as the "Slaughter of Varus" in German, the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest marked the end of Rome's ambitions in Germany. Arminius is remembered today as the first German national hero and Varus as the man who led Rome's armyto its worst defeat ever.